Here's the Beef

Balboa Cafe; Bill's Place; Burger Joint; Mo's Grill; Original Joe's; Pier 23 Cafe; Polkers Gourmet Burgers

It is common knowledge that we Californians are the undisputed masters of the hamburger dominion. Perhaps it's our long tradition of outdoor cookery -- it's warm enough here to cook alfresco, but cool enough to preclude the indoor relief of the air conditioner -- that gives us the experiential edge. Perhaps it's that culinary- cornucopia/end-of-the-rainbow talent for experimentation, so often scorned by the auslander, that lifts our burgers above the norm. In any case, venture beyond the state boundaries and risk exposure to skinny burgers, overcooked burgers, burgers the circumference of a Sacajawea dollar, burgers with all the rich satisfaction of sheet music roasted seven hours in a 525-degree toaster oven, or remain within and revel in the juicy masterpieces produced up and down the state: at the Diner in Yountville, the Avenue Grill in Mill Valley, the Chatter Box in Sutter Creek, Cassell's in L.A.

It's inevitable that San Francisco, that absorbent, inventive fulcrum of the culinary experience, would contain several outstanding varieties of hamburger within its city limits. One of the prize aspects of my home library is The Hippo Cookbook, a collection of recipes culled from a grandiloquent, all-burger restaurant that once flourished at Van Ness and Pacific. There the improvisational wackiness of the city by the bay was exhibited in full flower: in the Ice Cream Burger, for instance, and the Caviar Burger, and the Nude Burger, and its sinister fellow, the Nuke Burger.

Such culinary joie de vivre is largely missing from today's more earnest worldview, but there are a few tasty Hippo-esque remnants. At Polkers Gourmet Burgers, for instance, there's the Ortega ($7), a silken confluence of fresh avocado, mild green chilies, puckery feta cheese, and the venue's signature additive-free ground chuck. The big, comfy booths and rather stark, earth-toned setting allow you to concentrate on the burger before you (there are a half-dozen variations) and its platemate, a big pile of thickly cut french fries. Shakes ($3.25) are available in several flavors -- cherry, coconut, amaretto, and a rich, buttery caramel as well as chocolate, strawberry, and vanilla.

There's more individuality afoot at Mo's Grill, a bright, colorful Yerba Buena Gardens outpost of the legendary Grant Avenue flagship. Mo's not only grinds its meat fresh daily and broils its 7-ounce burgers over volcanic rock, it serves up a couple of tasty specialties you're not likely to experience elsewhere. The buffalo burger ($8.50) isn't as flavorful as the more familiar beef variety, but it's less greasy and boasts a wonderfully satisfying texture, while the turkey burger ($6.75), dotted with sage, is accompanied by a subtly sweet cranberry-ribboned mayo, offering the whole Thanksgiving experience in one easy-to-consume package. The onions and tomatoes are top quality here, as are the garlicky fries ($1): crisp and skinny, lightly salted, mildly greasy (in a good way), with bits of peel and lots of fresh garlic adding plenty of character. The thick, creamy shakes ($4) are huge -- 20 ounces -- and are more notable for their fresh flavor than for the usual cloying sweetness level. (The raspberry shake really tastes like fresh berries, not red dye No. 2.) The onion rings ($1), however, are altogether too doughy, with no discernible onion flavor and an unpleasantly sweet aftertaste.

Bill's Place, another temple to burger eclecticism (this one with a '50s-malt-shop feel), isn't as successful as Mo's. Its 19 varieties of burger include the Senator's Choice ($6.10), a juiceless patty covered in alfalfa sprouts and goop alleged to be blue cheese, and the Kiwi Burger ($6.29), an interesting combination of beets, coleslaw, and pineapple undermined by the invasive flavor of processed cheese. The coleslaw ($2) is crisp yet bland, the onion rings ($1.25) are crunchy but heavily breaded, and the shakes ($3.10) are tasty but watery. The curly fries ($1.25), though, have a nice spicy flavor.

The classic San Francisco-style hamburger is served at Original Joe's, where sourdough bread enters the equation. It's an elemental, even primal work of art: just ground beef, bread, and a few shards of onion, nothing more. Drop by after the kitchen fires up the charcoal grill at 5 p.m. so you'll be assured of a properly smoke-infused experience. Sit at the counter and watch the flames leap and the skillets sizzle and the counterman knead some chopped onion into an oblong patty of freshly ground chuck with a few sharp karate chops. After its date with the grill, the patty's slipped into a hollowed-out quarter-loaf of crusty sourdough and placed before you along with a pile of fries that you just saw emerge from a burbling vat of oil. The small salad ($3) -- lettuce with peas, carrots, and broccoli -- makes a perfectly crisp foil to this hamburger sandwich ($7.25; $6.25 for the Joe Junior). In assembling this report I tried to have a burger, fries, and a shake at every venue, but the closest I could come to a shake at Joe's was Kahlúa with vanilla ice cream ($6), which is just what it sounds like, served in a margarita glass and damnably good.

The Balboa Cafe also employs sourdough in its (rightfully legendary) burger ($9), but in a different way: Here a slender baguette is used as a sort of thin, crisp crust surrounding a rich, girthful, beautifully grilled slab of ground beef. The result is a hamburger at once elegant and hearty, served in the cafe's singularly clubby setting of crisp napery, dark woods, brass accents, handsome oils, and a handsome bar ideal for burger-eating. You can add all kinds of stuff to your burger at 50 cents a pop --mushrooms, bacon, cheddar, Swiss, jack, or, my choice, griddled onions and blue cheese -- and platter highlights include house-cured pickles, wonderfully citrusy-peppery marinated red onion rings, and crisp little french fries hot from the oil.

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